Patristics is the study of the early church fathers, not in the very first century—strictly speaking, that’s the earliest church—but normally patristic scholars look from the second century (although they’re interested in the first) up to the ninth century. It’s particularly what the early church fathers taught, what the church was like, etc.
In particular, the debate has been looking at these leaders in the early church. “Gosh, some of them actually were Universalists!” Everyone knew that Origen was and so Origen tended to have a bad rap. He was generally looked down on—including by patristic scholars because they just inherited that way of looking at him—but as people began to study the text more, there’s been a real revival in Origen’s reputation. In the church too, I mean, the past few popes have really loved him—”He’s a dude!” There’s been a lot of work that has been sort of trying to revive his reputation.
There are lots of debates about Origen and you’d really want to ask Ilaria Ramelli about this because she is like a super expert on Origen—she’s a super expert on everything, it just blows your mind. There are lots and lots of things people say that Origen said that arguably he probably didn’t say. In fact, oftentimes he said the opposite of what people say he said. So there are ongoing debates about how you interpret specific church fathers and what they taught. This debate has been growing with Ilaria’s work. She’s arguing that lots more church fathers were universalists—or at least had inclinations that way—than people have often thought. I think there’s a growing consensus or trajectory within patristic studies that would go in that direction. There are still questions about, “Well, this guy, it’s not so clear—Ilaria thinks he was, so-and-so thinks he wasn’t.” You get these debates about those kinds of things.
Another debate—and this is one that has revived again very recently—is, “What are the origins of Apokatastasis?” Apokatastasis is just the Greek word that is usually used when we talk about patristic universalism—it’s just to do with the restoration of all things at the end—the final restoration. I just used the word now because that’s the word the patristic folks tend to use—I’m talking about universalism.
One of the issues is, granted that Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and so on, were universalists—or believed in the Apokatastasis—where did they get that idea from? One school of thought is, “Actually, it’s a pagan idea. Maybe it originates in Gnosticism and they kind of gullibly imported it into Christianity and baptized it?” In effect, infected the theology of the Church with this alien idea that didn’t really belong within the Christian theological world. Those on the other side, like Ilaria, argue, “No, that’s ridiculous! In fact, the very first universalists were Christians. Gnostic universalism was a very different kind of ‘universalism’, it wasn’t even universalism proper as not everybody got saved in Gnostic universalism.” Also, Origen was ferociously opposed to Gnostics, he thought they were really terrible and dodgy theological characters.
Origen got his ideas, Ilaria argues, from Scripture. Scripture was really important for Origen, he was a massive scriptural commentator, he wrote masses and masses of stuff on the Bible, he was perhaps the most erudite scholar of the early church—perhaps even more than Augustine, who was a super amazing scholar. So she says he gets it from the Bible. He also gets it from various strands of Christian tradition that precedes him. He draws on Irenaeus a lot. Origen systematizes key ideas in Irenaeus—very Christian ideas—and developed them in ways that go in Apokatastasis.
Also, a very interesting tradition (that you find in lots of 2nd and 3rd-century Christian texts within proto-Orthodox Christian circles—churches that later developed into what we now know as Orthodoxy) where the Saints are praying for those in the lake of fire. Jesus’s invitation in some cases is to pray for those in the lake of fire and Jesus draws them out of the lake of fire. So this idea that the lake of fire or death is the point of no return once you died—”You can’t change your destiny”—wasn’t at all clear to a lot of Christians in the early church. It wasn’t incomprehensible or nonsensical to them to imagine somebody going into the lake fire and coming out of it. Origen takes these kinds of traditions and synthesizes them into his more systematic account of universalism or Apokatastasis. This is then passed down in that tradition through many fathers, including she argues—and I’m persuaded—Athanasius, who was a really important guy in terms of who was Jesus, Christology, Jesus’s divinity, and so on.
Above is my transcript—edited for readability—of an excerpt from the video below (for more transcripts see Robin’s Hope & Hell videos).